Add spice to your health...with cayenne

Dried and ground, cayenne, also known as chili pepper, may well be the hottest item on your spice rack, but it is probably the hottest item in your medicine chest as well.

Many chili-lovers know only too well the heartburn and distress that chili can cause in cooked dishes, but in its raw, uncooked state, dried powdered cayenne is a veritable hothouse of medical possibilities. As far as I'm concerned, it is a medicine for all seasons, in the truest sense of the word "medicine." That is, it empowers the body physically and emotionally and makes it easier for the immune system to function efficiently.

Cayenne is actually a stimulant and, as such, it improves blood circulation. Therefore, it has the ability to clear the blood of matter and gases that cause digestive problems and to help people who suffer from cold hands or feet. It alleviates inflammation and can break up the deposits that contribute to the pain of arthritis. It clears sinus congestion, conjunctivitis, and spongy, bleeding gums. Because it also has astringent qualities, it can stop bleeding and prevent swelling. A source of vitamin C, it rejuvenates the entire body when energy is depleted and is such a powerful stimulant that just a few sips of cayenne water or a few grains of cayenne on the lips may help prevent shock or depression in times of physical or emotional trauma. And it is believed to be a good tonic for strengthening the heart.

From my studies and my own experience with cayenne, I consider it to be an important ingredient for anybody interested in taking educated and careful responsibility for his or her own well-being in situations that are not serious enough to require a doctor's care or in circumstances in which medical attention is not immediately available.

The nice thing about using cayenne medicinally is that it doesn't require exotic ingredients or equipment. Recently, my husband and I were vacationing at the seashore and he spent the evening surfcasting. By the time he returned to the cottage, the pain in his shoulder indicated he had been at it too long.

I mixed about 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne with the contents of one vitamin E capsule and added enough safflower oil to make it workable. I gently rubbed the mixture in small, circular motions onto his shoulder and neck. I put a warm, damp towel on the area, and before I could finish packing everything away, hubby was fast asleep. He awoke an hour later and proclaimed that he was totally pain free. We removed the compress and rinsed the area to make sure that the skin was not irritated. The next morning he was down at the shore, casting away. The problem never returned.

Subsequently, we have used the same formula many times, sometimes with the addition of two drops of an anti-inflammatory known as tea tree oil or cajuput, a natural medicinal oil from the trees of Australia.

A young athletic friend of mine complained of having chronic pain in his left knee due to a college injury. He said that the pain often kept him from sleeping, but that he had been told there wasn't much he could do about it, short of surgery. He soon discovered that the cayenne mixture gave him immediate, safe, long-standing relief and allowed him to sleep peacefully and resume his normal activities. He now keeps a week's supply in his refrigerator at all time. Friends have used this treatment with equal success on chronic areas of arthritis, bursitis and gout, so the network of cayenne enthusiasts increases.

Maybe you have a particular hour of the day when the energy just seems to drain out, and you wonder how you will make it through the rest of your chores. For me, that hour is four o'clock in the afternoon. Then I discovered my special "Energy Brew." I stir one-half teaspoon apple cider vinegar and one-half teaspoon raw honey into a mixture of one-quarter cup orange juice and one-quarter cup pure water. Then I add a pinch of powdered cayenne. (For me, one-sixteenth to one-eighth of a teaspoon works well, but I started with just a few grains of the powder until I was sure how much my mouth and system could tolerate.) Within 10 minutes I am fully rejuvenated and ready to go. Even the very smallest amounts of cayenne are effective, and in emergencies I add just a few grains of it to a little water, swish it around my mouth to start the digestion there, and swallow. It works!

When I am even mildly run-down, I often wind up with bleeding gums, inflamed sinuses and red, itchy eyes. I began testing cayenne for my gums by adding just eight or 10 visible grains of it to the water I used to rinse my mouth after brushing. As soon as I discovered how wonderful that felt, I increased the dosage a bit and expanded the regimen. Now immediately after flossing every day, I put a small amount of cayenne on the wet, soft bristles of my toothbrush and gently massage it into my gums, allowing its stimulant and astringent properties to go to work. Then I add toothpaste and brush normally. Afterwards, I rinse my mouth with a pinch of cayenne in water. As a result, I no longer have any problem with bleeding, spongy gums, nor have I had any abscesses or mouth blisters.

Cayenne has proved equally effective on congested, inflamed sinuses. Just a few specks of cayenne in distilled water has the ability to relieve sinus pain for me, and eliminate the congestion. Tilting my head back, I slowly pour a tiny amount of cayenned water into one nostril. Holding the other nostril closed with a finger, I sniff in the liquid. Yes, it does tingle a bit as it trickles down the throat, but it does the job! Not only does the sinus pain disappear rapidly, but the number of throat infections I've had have diminished dramatically.

The real test of my faith in cayenne came when I developed a stubborn case of allergic conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, that would not heal with prescribed medication. I knew that a weak cayenne eye rinse was often recommended by herbalists, but I just couldn't bring myself to try it. My biggest fear was that if something went wrong, I'd have to go back to my medical doctor and tell him I had put pepper in my eye! However, after adding cayenne to a chili recipe, I carelessly rubbed my eye with my finger and presto, the cayenne was in. Naturally, it smarted, and I absolutely do not recommend rubbing cayenne into the eye, but after quickly flushing the eye out with plenty of distilled water, I discovered that the smarting was gone, as was the pain, itching and redness of the conjunctivitis!

Uncooked, powdered cayenne has also been used effectively in combating such diverse problems as constipation and laryngitis. Because it is an astringent, which constricts bodily secretions, it can be used as a styptic to stop wounds from bleeding. It has even been used successfully in treating bleeding ulcers!

Remember that we're talking only about uncooked cayenne. When used in cooked recipes, cayenne often acts as an irritant to the digestive system. Therefore, to add cayenne's spicy heat to your food and gain its medicinal advantages at the same time, add it raw, after the dish has been prepared.

Herbs with medicinal capability are effective because they are potent packages of condensed energy that our bodies can draw on. Regard them with respect and caution. Even the most mild herb may not agree with everybody. It is advisable to test one herb at a time, before adding it to a mixture of herbs. Start with the smallest dose of an herb to make sure it does not cause a negative reaction in you.

With herbs, more is not necessarily better. Careful, consistent use of those that work for you may be more productive than larger, infrequent dosages. With some herbs, such as cayenne, a small amount can be fully productive. Furthermore, always be realistically aware of the conditions or situations that demand the immediate attention of a medical doctor, and if there is any doubt in your mind, get professional help.

If you are interested in learning more about the medicinal virtues of cayenne, three highly readable books are: Lalitha Thomas' 10 Essential Herbs, Lesley Tierra's The Herbs of Life: Health and Healing Using Western & Chinese Techniques, and Dian Dincin Buchman's Herbal Medicine.

PHOTO (COLOR): Cayenne

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By Laura W. Krieger

Laura Krieger is a nutritionist, freelance author and frequent contributor to Total Health. She resides in Commack, N.Y.

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